I’m about 5 days away from officially starting my PhD in German at University College London, and I’ve spent a good deal of the summer answering that question – always asked with kindness and interest – ‘what’s it going to be about?’ Each time I answered, I would notice how my response became more automatic and monotonous, and how the project appeared to be less and less interesting, both to my interlocutor and to me.
Over the past week or so though, as I flipped back through my notes, my plans and my proposal, I have been freshly fired up about the project and have been fondly remembering when and how I stumbled into it.
I spent my third year abroad in Heidelberg, and though I don’t remember thinking much about it at the time, I was dimly aware that this was the place where the romantic writers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim put together their collection of 723 ‘old German songs’, called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). I bought a beautiful copy of volume one in one of Heidelberg’s many second-hand bookshops and was at turns delighted, confused and moved by its contents. Upon my return to England, whilst Googling the Wunderhorn I found out that volumes two and three of the collection contained many songs that had been sent to Arnim and Brentano from contributors all over Germany, and that the majority of this contributed material was now stored in the Heidelberg University Library. I concocted a plan and was granted a DAAD scholarship after graduation to spend ten months researching this material.
I wanted to understand why Arnim and Brentano had selected certain songs and not others, how they had edited the stuff they had collected, and, perhaps mostly, I wanted to see the manuscripts! It is strangely paradoxical to be interested in the materiality of a thing so ethereal as a folksong, but there you go. It is an interest in this materiality – the concrete processes of collecting, revising and publishing these supposed folksongs – that drives my research now.
My PhD research will follow the Wunderhorn from its conception in contrast to the anthologies that preceded it, (mainly Becker’s Mildheimische Liederbuch), through its reception by romantics and enlightenment thinkers, and its censorship and re-modelling as a kind of ‘Frauenanthologie’ in 1874 by editors Birlinger and Crecelius. The Wunderhorn’s use of material with female stereotypes unusual for the time is just one of the things that marked it out as in need of ‘revision’ by later editors, especially in order to make it suitable for the newly developing female book market. It will be fascinating to compare the songs of Des Mädchens Wunderhorn (The Girl’s Magic Horn), a spin-off collection produced in 1848, with the original work, and to explore why an avant Garde performance group in Munich called die Elf Scharfrichter (The Eleven Executioners) chose original Wunderhorn songs for their provocative and grisly cabaret shows in 1901.
The Goethe quotation in my provisional title ‘Weder vom Volk noch für’s Volk gedichtet’ (written neither by the folk, nor for the folk) perfectly captures the interest this project has for me. I will enjoy tracing the precise decisions and revisions, situated so tangibly within their historical and social contexts in fact, that steered this collection of songs through the long nineteenth century – songs constantly presented as simple, untouched, and timelessly relevant.